On Lingering Questions and the Nature of Theology

Yesterday I posted a response to one aspect of Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique of Evangelical Calvinism. This was inspired, in large part, by Bobby Grow’s own blog post to which Kevin Vanhoozer commented:

I suppose my lingering question is this: if the Incarnation means that the all humans are elect (because the Son assumes/elects human nature), and if the atoning work of Christ benefits all human beings, and if Jesus’ vicarious humanity includes his faith on my behalf, then it wouldSquare Peg in a Round Hole seem that his saving work is sufficient for all.

The usual response at this point is that I am imposing a Western logico-causal framework onto the discussion, whereas I’m only trying to think clearly!

On my own blog and in reply to what I wrote yesterday, someone who frequently comments here remarked that he too shares Vanhoozer’s question. What I would like to do in this post is not provide an extended answer (something which Bobby has just offered here) but rather to offer a brief (given the length of yesterday’s post!) reflection on the reality of having to live with “lingering questions” in any theological endeavor due to the nature of its subject matter.

 T.F. Torrance writes:

Let us be quite frank. To speak like this of God’s inner Being we cannot but feel to be a sacrilegious intrusion into the inner holy of holies of God’s Being, before which we ought rather to cover our faces and clap our hands on our mouths, for God is ineffable in the transcendence and majesty of his eternal Being. The God whom we have come to know through his infinite condescension in Jesus Christ, we know to be infinitely greater than we can ever conceive, so that it would be sheer theological sin to think of identifying the trinitarian structures of our thought and speech of God with the constitutive relations in the Being of the Godhead. All true theological concepts and statements inevitably fall far short of the God to whom they refer, so that their inadequacy, as concepts and as statements, to God must be regarded as essential to their truth and precision. The Triune God is more to be adored than expressed.[1]

If we truly take to heart what Torrance says here, we will all acknowledge that, to a certain extent, all of our thinking and speaking about God and his ways and works constitutes a “sacrilegious intrusion” into places where ever angels fear to tread. This is not to say, of course, that our theologizing is inherently sinful; quite the contrary. Nevertheless, it is to say that when we are dealing with the reality of the eternal God in his Triune being and activity, it is inevitable that questions will remain. Many of our unanswered questions, I think, come from the fact that while we can often affirm “that…”,  it is much more difficult to understand “how” or “why”.

I can affirm that God is One and Three, but I don’t know how this can be.

I can affirm that this Triune God created all things ex nihilo, but I can’t explain how he did.

I can affirm that evil entered the good creation of God through the sin of Adam, but I have no idea how or why it happened.

I can affirm that the Word became flesh, one person, two natures, fully God, fully man, but how this can be I cannot begin to fathom.

Similarly, I can affirm that all humanity is elect and represented in the vicarious humanity of Christ, but I cannot give an account for the precise “mechanism” (for lack of a better terms) of how individual human beings come to share subjectively in Christ’s humanity, nor can I comprehend why many will ultimately be damned.

This is not to say that no explanations can or should be attempted. Indeed, as I mentioned above, Bobby Grow has done an excellent job in responding to Vanhoozer’s questions. Rather, it is to say that all of our explanations fall short of the reality which they attempt to describe, and that we have to admit that, in the final analysis, what we understand is far less than what we don’t understand. This is the nature of the subject matter – or better the Subject himself – that is the object of our inquiry in theology.

In summary, many questions will linger, regardless of the particular ‘system’ or ‘school of thought’ or ‘confessional tradition’ that we follow. This is not an excuse, of course, for intellectual laziness. Rather, it is a humble admission of our finitude and incapacity to fully understand the ways and works of God. At the end of the day, all we can do is clap our hands over our mouths, fall on our faces, and worship.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1980. The ground and grammar of theology, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. pp.166-167.